Last weekend’s re-election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous Bolivian president, didn’t surprise anyone. What was unexpected about the results of the 6 December poll was the extent of the incumbent’s success. It will allow Morales to govern for the next five years without major political opposition which means he will be able to deepen his program of Bolivian "refoundation", the main feature of which is the empowerment of indigenous people.
Evo Morales — or "Evo" as he is better known in Latin America — won over more than 60 per cent of the 5.1 million Bolivians registered to vote in this election. Well behind were his main opponents, the conservative Manfred Reyes Villa and the entrepreneur Samuel Doria Medina.
Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement to Socialism — or MAS) was also a big winner. It obtained a two-thirds majority of the 130 deputies and 36 senators who make up the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly.
This result is critical to the continuation of Morales’ indigenous-ethnic socialist project that began with his election in 2006. It is, as Morales has said "a mandate to accelerate this revolutionary process".
And fundamental to the MAS victory was Morales’ ability to win the middle class vote. This is a class usually aligned to conservative parties and — let’s be brutal here — often deeply racist against indigenous people. Morales managed to persuade the middle class that it has a place in his program of transformation. "Welcome to this revolutionary process," he told them.
With this landslide victory, Morales will encounter few obstacles as he moves to reform the State and democratise key institutions like the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court.
He will also be in a strong position to implement his plans to amend the constitution to facilitate indigenous autonomy. This will allow the indigenous people of Bolivia — 62 per cent of the population — to undertake traditional native forms of governance such as consensus building. This in turn will mean greater sovereignty and self-determination.
The magnitude of this most recent success in the poll indicates that the majority of the country approves of the central propositions that underpin Evo Morales’ socialist project. The first of these — as Bolivian sociologist and Vice-President Álvaro García Linera has phrased it — is a "national productive" model. During his first term, Morales took full control of the energy and mineral sector. He nationalised gas and increased taxes on oil companies.
With this national productive model Evo Morales managed to guarantee the State a major surplus. This has been used to create public companies and to finance social aid programs. His aim is to end the historic social and economic marginalisation of indigenous people. The windfall has also been used to implement massive literacy projects and to introduce direct welfare subsidies for children, pregnant women, and the elderly.
The second proposition — and perhaps the most noteworthy — encourages the development of indigenous identification with the Morales socialist project. Indigenous people have become politically active in seeking autonomy and self-determination.
This constitutes a major deviation from the patterns which have hitherto defined contemporary Bolivian history. Bolivian indigenous people have been subject to decades of racism and oppression by the white elite. This epoch ended with the arrival of Evo Morales. He has instigated — not just through his political rhetoric but through his actions — a new sense of pride and empowerment. So much so that the white elite is beginning to complain that the "indigenous are now arrogant".
It is expected that in his second term Morales’ project will develop initiatives that were launched during his first term — like giving land to indigenous people — and will endure the amendment of the constitution such that indigenous autonomy is guaranteed.
This massive win also shows that Morales’ popularity has not faded — despite the allegations of abuse of power and corruption scandals that plagued his first term. And while he has been elected with a comfortable majority, he will nonetheless face some major challenges.
Firstly, there has been a fall in gas and oil production in Bolivia due to a lack of good investment and management. It is predicted that this decline in production, combined with drops in international prices, will reduce the Bolivian public coffers by more than US$1 billion — some 17 per cent of the national budget.
Secondly, Morales must work to bring together a profoundly divided country. As in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, an almost irreconcilable divide between "Evistas" and the opposition has marred the achievements of Morales. Evo may have clearly shown that most Bolivians support him, but that doesn’t mean that the others will go along with him calmly.
In his second term Morales will have to engage in a strategy of inclusion of all social sectors, including the old elite that dominated Bolivian politics until recently. He will have to tone down his virulent anti-opposition rhetoric and develop a more conciliatory narrative. He has to widen his political appeal and implement — as the Bolivian consul in Sydney Antonio Morón Nava told newmatilda.com, "a project of national unity".
If Morales doesn’t do this, he will risk facing a desperate, destabilising and undemocratic conservative right wing opposition. And in Latin America this kind of opposition is a recipe for disaster. Bolivia — where 60 per cent of its 10 million people are poor — just can’t afford this.
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